How livestock endangers biodiversity, and why it matters

The following is an excerpt from Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, which was just released by Rodale Books:

Possibly the most chilling effect of the livestock industry is how it alters our planet in ways that change its composition forever. Duncan Williamson, food policy manager at the World Wildlife Fund, UK, estimates that approximately 30 percent of global biodiversity loss can be attributed to aspects of livestock production. Our planet is rich in biodiversity, meaning it hosts an enormous variety of life-forms. And healthy ecosystems comprise a complex system of millions of interrelated species. Insects, bats, and birds pollinate flowers and feed on pests. Microbial species live on, and in, plants and animals, and are especially abundant in soils. These creatures serve to maintain balance and recycle nutrients so that life can regenerate, convert atmospheric nitrogen to soil nitrogen compounds vital for plant growth, and live in association with plant roots to facilitate the uptake of water and nutrients.

How Does Livestock Production Alter Biodiversity?
For one, via the spread of grazing and crop-land. Turning forests and savannas over to agriculture–especially animal agriculture, because it requires so much land–destroys native plant and animal species and their habitat. In addition, animal farming saps soil nutrients and pollutes the environment as waste runoff from farms causes algae blooms that consume oxygen in water, killing essential bacteria and destroying healthy ecosystems. During most summers today, between 13,000 and 20,000 square kilometers at the mouth of the Mississippi River become a “dead zone” due to agricultural runoff. Nearly 400 dead zones ranging in size from 1 to more than 70,000 square kilometers have been identified, from the Scandinavian fjords to the South China Sea.

In addition to crowding out native ecosystems and the land’s natural biodiversity, modern farmers grow only a handful of crops for animal feed, which further reduces plant biodiversity. Public health scientists at Harvard University have estimated that just 15 plant species constitute more than 90 percent of those grown to support global livestock production.

Why We Need to Preserve Biodiversity
The earth’s ecosystems are delicate and complex, and scientists warn that such a drastic reduction in biodiversity could be catastrophic, especially when compounded by climate change. As the Harvard scientists write, “Genetic diversity in crops reduces the odds of crop failure secondary to changing weather, protects against the spread of plant diseases and attack by plant pests, and can lead to greater yields. As agriculture continues to rely on fewer and fewer species and varieties of crops and livestock, and as wild relatives are increasingly threatened, the need to preserve the genetic diversity of crop species and domestic animals for future generations grows steadily.” Shifting away from animal agriculture would free up millions of acres that could be returned to their more natural state, allowing balanced, diverse ecosystems to function.

As you can see, the effects of an animal-based diet create a vicious cycle. Livestock contribute significantly to the release of gases that hasten global warming while simultaneously making our environment much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The livestock industry deprives the planet of water and space while making it impossible to accommodate the expected population growth in the coming decades.

At Farm Sanctuary, we follow a plant-based diet that seeks to reverse these ominous trends. Living in harmony with animals and the environment is not simply a matter of being in nature and communing with our fellow creatures. It’s also about acknowledging that communing with animals rather than eating them is the healthiest choice that we can make for the planet and the future generations that will inhabit it. Plus it makes the animals happy (I couldn’t help but throw that in there).

Wild Vertebrate Populations Have Dropped 52% Since 1970

The World Wildlife Fund‘s annual Living Planet Report surveys over 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. The 2014 report has just been released and it shows populations of wild vertebrate species declined 52 percent between 1970 and 2010. The report points the finger at habitat loss and destruction and the exploitation of animal populations as the primary causes of the die-off. The effects of climate change are also having a significant impact and are anticipated to have an even greater impact in the future. While the WWF admits the report “is not for the faint-hearted,” they hope that the information will prove useful so “humanity can make better choices that translate into clear benefits for ecology, society and the economy today and in the long term.”

The statistical breakdowns in the report are disturbing reading indeed: terrestrial and marine species declined by 39 percent over the 40-year period, while freshwater species declined by 76 percent. For the populations where threats could be identified and monitored, responsibility for population decline was attributed to exploitation 37 percent of the time, habitat degradation or change 31.4 percent of the time, habitat loss 13.4 percent, and climate change 7.1 percent. Other threats identified were invasive species or genes, pollution and disease. To break it down further, including the good news and the bad news, the WWF have produced an excellent infographic showing the impact of human activity on biodiversity….

For the full article, click here.

Wildlife services: Death from the air (taxpayer funded)

Wildlife Services: Death from the Air
by wolf advocate and author Rick Lamplugh
From his Facebook page

Each of the 58 wolf-paw stickers adorning this Wildlife Services aircraft represents a wolf kill. This photo surfaced in 2011, after the federal agency had stopped using the stickers. But they haven’t stopped aerial gunning. Just last month, their gunners in helicopters slaughtered 19 wolves in the remote Lolo region of Idaho. The killing was kept secret until recently.

While I shake my head in disgust at this agency’s mission and methods, I find another bitter pill to swallow: all of us help fund Wildlife Services with our tax dollars. The amount paid by taxes is reduced by income from what the agency calls “cooperators”—counties, public institutions, private businesses, or special interest groups that want animals removed and will pay the agency’s bargain rate. Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game paid Wildlife Services to deliver death from above the Lolo wolves.

The other four Rocky Mountain wolf states also use the agency. Here’s how much was spent in each state in 2013 (most recent data) and the percentage of that total paid by taxpayers. Idaho—site of the recent slaughter—managed to get us taxpayers to pick up three-quarters of the tab for their wildlife killing.

Wyoming spent $4,254,043, and taxpayers paid 36%
Washington spent $3,832,996, and taxpayers paid 57%
Oregon spent $3,628,846, and taxpayers paid 37%
Montana spent $3,077,910, and taxpayers paid 52%
Idaho spent $2,066,106, and taxpayers paid 75%

While Wildlife Services reports the amount paid for their deadly work, they do not reveal the reasons for removal or exactly what they did. That secrecy is one of critics’ biggest complaints. “Wildlife Services is one of the most opaque and obstinate departments I’ve dealt with,” said U.S. Representative Peter Defazio. “We’re really not sure what they’re doing.” Defazio—then the ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources—questioned the agency about its lethal methods and poisons. He’s still waiting for an answer.

Defazio is not alone in his wondering. In late 2013, the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General announced that it would audit Wildlife Services. Tom Knudson, from the Center for Investigative Reporting, reported recently that the audit still hasn’t been released. When it will come out and what it will find is anyone’s guess, he says.

Knudson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning environment reporter, once asked to observe Wildlife Services’ lethal predator control in action on public land in Nevada. Their answer: NO. Knudson says he was shocked because, “Even the military allows reporters into the field on its missions overseas. Here at home, on land owned by all Americans, Wildlife Services does not.”

Wildlife Services has operated under various identities and hidden within different departments for more than 100 years. Some say it helped clear the West for our nation’s expansion. But times have changed and so have public attitudes about protecting wildlife. It’s time for Wildlife Services to stop the senseless carnage, to be open about what they do, and to focus on nonlethal control.

As always, I’d love to read your comments on this issue. I most appreciate comments free of cursing or threats.

To read Tom Knudson’s latest report on Wildlife Services:

Rick Lamplugh is a wolf advocate and author of the bestseller In the Temple of Wolves
To order an eBook or paperback:
For a signed copy from the author:

Essential species quiz

Here is a short multiple-choice quiz to test your knowledge of our fellow animals.

Instructions: Choose the species that best fit the descriptions below.

Note: Although some may share a few of the characteristics, they must meet all the criteria listed in order to qualify as a correct answer.

1. Which two species fit the following description?
Highly social
Live in established communities
Master planners and builders of complex, interconnected dwellings
Have a language
Can readily learn and invent words
Greet one another by kissing

A. Humans
B. Prairie Dogs
C. Dolphins
D. Penguins

Answer: A. and B

2. Which two species fit the following description?
Practice communal care of the youngsters on their block
Beneficial to others who share their turf
Essential to the health of their environment
Without them an ecosystem unravels
Have been reduced to a tiny portion of their original population

A. Humans
B. Prairie Dogs
C. Bison
D. Hyenas

Answer: B. and C.

3. Which two species fit the following description?
Out of control pest
Multiplying at a phenomenal pace
Physically crowding all other life forms off the face of the earth
Characterized by a swellheaded sense of superiority
Convinced they are of far greater significance than any other being
Nonessential in nature’s scheme

A. Humans
B. Prairie Dogs
C. Cockroaches
D. Sewer Rats

Answer: Sorry, trick question; the only species fitting the criteria is A.

If this seems a harsh assessment of the human race or a tad bit misanthropic, remember, we’re talking about the species that single-handedly and with malice aforethought blasted, burned and poisoned the passenger pigeon (at one time the most numerous bird on the entire planet) to extinction and has nearly wiped out the blue whale (by far the largest animal the world has ever known). Add to those crowning achievements the near-total riddance of the world’s prairie dogs, thereby putting the squeeze on practically all their grassland comrades, and you can start to see where this sort of disrelish might be coming from.

When the dust settles on man’s reign of terror, he will be best remembered as an egomaniacal mutant carnivorous ape who squandered nature’s gifts and goose-stepped on towards mass extinction, in spite of warnings from historians and scientists and pleas from the caring few…

Click here for the original article.

Predator control: the problem of thinking linearly in a multi-dimensional world

By Bod Ferris, 5 Feb. 2015

“These results should serve as a cautionary tale for those wishing to increase ungulate numbers via predator control without regard to other ecological factors, such as the proximity of the prey population to ecological carrying capacity (K).” in Abstract of “Population density of Dall’s sheep in Alaska: effects of predator harvest” from Mitchell et al. (2015) in Mammal Research Vol. 60 pp. 21-28

If there is one thing that we are learning of late in regards to lethal predator control, it is that the myth of its broad efficacy and appropriateness has been whittled away to nearly nothing and the shavings are still coming off. Unfortunately the transmission of the news of that happenstance and its acceptance by some in the population seem to be working about as well as trickle-down economics is for 99% percent of Americans.

I have written about this topic a lot over the last 20 years and the conclusions seem to be about the same: Predators generally do not drive down prey populations in the absence of other—usually more important—habitat issues. An exception seems to be when depressed populations are low and not hampered by habitat constraints then predators can slow recovery. But even this example is problematic as one has to ask why, if habitat was not an issue, did the populations become depressed in the first place? Mismanagement? Disease?

The study quoted above coming out of Alaska and looking at Dall’s sheep is one more indication that the lethal control of predators—while appealing to those who think linearly (i.e., simply in terms of prey versus predator numbers)—can be tricky when you throw in other factors (dimensions) such as availability of escape habitat, severity of winters and the prey population’s closeness to carrying capacity.

This Alaska study looked at areas where lethal control was employed and those where it was not. And while populations climbed quicker in those areas where predators were killed, some of those gains were erased (and then some) when those populations hit the carrying capacity wall and starved during winter.

Most wildlife biologists understand and embrace the above. The problems come when these professionals try to explain the complexities and the need for caution to a sector of the public that has been allowed and even encouraged to think that dead wolves, coyotes, and lions always mean more deer, elk and sheep. This situation is not helped when fish and wildlife commissions are too heavily influenced by livestock interests mistakenly echoing the same call for control. And the climb out of this pit of predator prejudice is further hampered because it is all happening within regulatory settings and agency cultures—particularly in the West—that have historically treated predators as unwanted and undeserving of much in the way of consideration and thought.
“As trained scientists, Idaho Fish and Game stands by our data and our wildlife management plans. We manage wolves to ensure we keep state management authority and address conflicts with people, livestock, and other big game populations.” Statement by Virgil Moore, Director, Idaho Fish and Game January 29, 2015

Unfortunately while the solutions to much of the above are obvious —follow science and sound management prescriptions —the path forward is not and the mountain left to climb is very steep. Evidence of the extent of this challenge is clear when we read items like the recent statement by Mr. Moore above. In this release he talks about maintaining management authority, people, livestock and big game populations but nowhere in that statement is a clear or even implied commitment to continued recovery of wolves or any hint of this keystone species’ ecological value. While it is great to have truckloads of wildlife scientists, if the voices of ranchers and trophy hunters are treated as trump cards the quality and volume of science has little value. And the above from Idaho is by no means unusual or the worst. The rhetoric around the discharge of respected wildlife biologist Ken Mayer in Nevada took this rancher-influenced, pro-lethal control ethos and ecological ignorance to an art form (please see 1,2).

“I’m sure most of the people being considered for his [Mayer’s] job graduated from a college,” he said. “These people are the cause of the destruction of wildlife.” Cliff Gardner, 74, a rancher in Nevada’s remote Ruby Valley. In “Ouster Sharpens Debate on Sage Grouse”

All sea change takes time particularly when there are economic interests standing in strong opposition to knowledge and progress. But I and many other biologists long for the day when wildlife agencies in the West and elsewhere are run by folks who stand up for what current science says and are overseen by those who embrace and understand science as well as set aside their self-interests in favor of those of the wildlife and habitats under their care.

Click here for the original article.